OPINION FEATURE – DECISIONS AT THE ROUND TABLE: Superintendent Crowned
By Guest Writer- Johnson Martin, Ph.D
Retired Ex. Director and former principal in the Pittsburgh School District
The three most influential positions in the city are police commissioner, mayor and school superintendent. The process for the first two was decided by the voters and an appointed selection committee. Now the taxpayers of the city are faced with a traditional, or non traditional, process to select the best candidate as their new superintendent of schools.
After the criteria are established for the candidates, the Board of Education members will, in most cases, hire an outside agency to conduct the screening process of all candidates. Whatever the process, the Board makes the final decision. This has been the procedure for many years, not only in Pittsburgh, but across the nation. Because some Board members are not totally knowledgeable about all the other ingredients that make schools work, they sometime choose the wrong educator, or one that has to be terminated before the end of the contract. Longevity is the key to making urban school districts improve and stay improved for a substantial period of time. Within the last fourteen years, Pittsburgh has had three superintendents, plus two interim leaders. Yes, most superintendents only last two to three years because there are problems with the academic progress of students, mismanagement of budgets and personality differences with Board members. When this happens, the students suffer, because in this short period of each superintendent’s time, the programs change as new cabinets make decisions on school reform projects. Each previous innovation that worked can be given little attention, or discontinued by the incoming superintendent. He/She might have their own specialty and want to try something that is not fully researched, thereby leading to complete confusion among the school staff.
I attended a recent meeting where a panel provided information on the standard process to select Pittsburgh’s new superintendent. I heard nothing new, nor was I happy about who would have the final word on who would be hired. Why should nine Board members, consisting of three with no experience, have the only say in the final decision? Citizens throughout the city should have their voices heard when their schools are on the list to be closed and supplemental programs are shut down because of budget cuts. Several school districts are beginning to change their selection process by including selected citizen leaders, or like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, a body of city leaders who participate in the screening and selection process. It’s time for Pittsburgh to practice what they preach about community involvement in the selection process.
We all know that candidates can present impressive resumes. However, there are so many things to cover that the interviews must be conducted by committees that can ask in-depth educational questions about all phases of school reform. The city needs a superintendent that can talk and write about what difficult reforms they designed and can prove that the implementation helped students. The reason that the Steelers won for such a long period was because they had coaches who were around for several years. It takes the same length of time as a successful coach to prove your worth as a superintendent. If things are really bad, then the Board must take action, otherwise the Board members should work with the new person and help with development of new programs so that teachers and students will benefit. Changing models and programs are detrimental for everyone.
The great Orson Welles once said, “ If I were President of the USA for one day, I would do…”, then he stated what he thought was necessary. Like Welles, if I were president of the school board I would make the following recommendations for a new process in the selection of school superintendent:
Once the group of candidates is chosen through the outside search agency, I would have two additional committees of six-seven people work with the school board members. One committee would consist of chosen community leaders who have a history of school involvement. The second group would be made up of retired/former central office directors. These educators are very knowledgeable about how all programs work in schools, and third would be the central committee of the board members. Each committee would independently interview all candidates and communicate periodically with the other committees regarding their opinions about the candidates. These round table meetings will help to narrow the screening process until it’s down to the top few. Although there is input from the additional committees to the public, the Board members will make the final selection with one or two members from the sub committees.
In order to keep the public aware of the on going process, a section in the Sunday paper and community bulletins will be used as a public note to keep Pittsburgh citizens informed. There must be strict rules in contacting educators at the candidates’ present school districts so as to not jeopardize their positions. Students can often judge if a school administrator is too autocratic or pleasant enough to listen to their concerns. Perhaps two students should be added to one of the committees.
I was in education for thirty-five years. The last two years were as a consultant to superintendents Mark Roosevelt and Linda Lane. I saw the stress and pain on their faces when programs had to be closed. It is a highly stressful job. In order to bring Pittsburgh back to the days of excellence, we need someone to have the iron will of Queen Elizabeth or the intestinal strength of King Arthur. When reforms show progress and students are improving in challenging courses, only then can the new leader pull the golden pencil from the anvil and stand resolute and shouting, “ I am now proud to be crowned superintendent of the Pittsburgh School District”.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition or the Squirrel Hill Magazine*